Advice for utilities: Don't cede power to clean energy

I once read that when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights legislation into law, he said something like, "I'm ceding the South to the Republican Party for the next 40 years." Listening to several utility CEOs talk at the WSJ ECO:nomics conference last week, it seemed like many were taking a parallel track: ceding electricity generation to the solar industry, perhaps forever.

The message from several utility CEOs was, "We're focusing on transmission and distribution and getting the grid shored up to withstand lots of points of generation, some of which will not be controlled by us." Now, I applaud that they don't have their heads in the sand about the growing market desire to create and store energy (it seems to me that some utilities are trying to fight the market signals rather than pivoting to coexist with/accommodate customer desires). But I'd also urge utilities not to cede the enviable marketing relationship they have with their customers.

Quite literally, utilities have an opportunity that every other industry wishes it had. They:

• Have all their customers' current contact information.

• Know all about their customers' behaviors and usage patterns.

• Can send a basic letter to any given customer and just about be guaranteed that the letter will be opened.

So, to all you utility executives out there, I'd say two things:

1. Don't cede your role as a customer relationship manager.

You may be beginning to put customer relationship management systems in place and only starting to think about how you can leverage all the data you have — but hang in there and stay the course. As other generation options proliferate, those companies will need a way to connect with customers. You could be that way.

2. As you focus on making the grid work for a thousand points of generation, tell your customers about it.

Let your customers know that you're working your tail off to ensure they have lots of generation options in the future, and that you'll make sure they can connect however they want to. Let them see you as a partner so they'll actually want you to play a role in the future as their "tour guide," mentor and concierge in the energy space. There's a profitable business model in that — one the solar industry, and even your customers, will be willing to pay for.

This story first appeared at the Shelton Group's Shelton Insights blog. Electricity pylons photo by Mark Sayer via Shutterstock.